We just want you to feel happy
When asked the question: “What is it that you most want for your child?”, most parents I have spoken to have said something along the lines of “I just want them to feel happy within themselves.”
Naturally, parents want their child to feel good about who they are, but for adolescents this can seem like an extremely hard task. The internet and social media age hasn’t made this any easier. Snapshots of “the perfect life” are on show everywhere, and this gives young people a distorted vision of how they should look (flawless, 100% of the time) and only piles more pressure on them to “be someone”. Combine this with a young person’s natural instinct to compare themselves with others when they are developing their sense of self and it would seem that adolescents today need high levels of self-esteem more than ever.
Self-esteem can be described as having confidence in one’s own worth or abilities. Essentially, it’s having a healthy level of self-respect. Someone I know who has suffered the effects of an eating disorder said to me that “self-esteem and body image are one and the same, if you don’t feel good about yourself, you won’t like what you see in the mirror.”
So how can parents and other adults achieve that shared goal of helping young people feel good about themselves? Can we help them to develop an acceptance of themselves the way they are? To see a body that they love and accept as their own, no matter the shape or size? Let’s start by breaking it down into three areas: education, building resilience, and positive reinforcement.
Education is one of the most powerful tools we can give young people to build self-esteem and confidence. We could be doing so much more to educate young people in how to take a step back and think differently about the images and language they see online and in the media. Talk them through how what they are seeing isn’t someone’s reality, but more often than not it’s a sales pitch instead. That some content is designed to make them think they have a problem that a particular product or look can solve, to make them feel like they need to improve themselves.
In a recent workshop with a group of young women on the subject of body image, I got them to go through a magazine (their social media feed would have worked just as well) and asked them to remove any page with an advert on. They were left with only a few.
“What does this show you?” I asked.
“That I need all this stuff in order to be happy.” one responded.
“And how does this make you feel?”
As a result of this education, young people can start to see that resilience will play a major role in determining whether they live a happy and successful life, as defined by them. In her book “Supernormal”, Meg Ryan describes how resilience is not a trait one just acquires, but an expression that can be used to describe someone who triumphs over adversity with time. Part of being resilient is having a positive attitude, and we can show young people how optimism will help them to develop strong self-esteem. How? Don’t highlight or condemn what you see as their ‘failures’, instead help them see that failure is not final or defining, but rather a milestone they must encounter as part of learning. The process of making mistakes, discussing what they can do next and not passing blame to others will allow them to take responsibility for their own self-esteem, belief and confidence. Find out what inspires them, and use this in simple goal setting procedures and watch their self-esteem soar; I’ve witnessed this in action and it’s quite something to behold.
This is where the challenge comes in for us as adults - we must see past our own expectations of what we think the young person “ought to be”, and see the person that they are at that point in time, and most importantly respect them for that. A sign I saw on a gate entrance to a field nicely summarises this point; “Please do not feed our horses, your kindness may kill.”
It can be hard for a young person to understand that some comments come from a place of love, and they may interpret them differently. “It’s good to see you’re finally exercising,” may be interpreted as “you need to lose weight.”
We must talk to young people in a way that highlights their positive qualities and attributes. Help them to understand what makes them special and unique, and to let go of what they do not have, or who they aren’t. This will give them the space, time and confidence to concentrate on who they really are.
Show them that in a world where everybody else is taken, being yourself is exceptional.
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About Matthew Barnes-Smith
Matt is a coach and mentor providing a confidential and safe space for young people to express whatever is on their mind without fear of judgement, and empower them to take control of their life and choices.